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Labor Unions Rally Behind California’s Zero-Emissions Climate Plan

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 10, 2021

Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been spearheading national and international efforts to tackle the climate crisis for more than a decade. Over the past few years, he and a group of his colleagues at PERI have produced green economy transition programs for numerous states. The latest such program is for California, and it is being released today.

The massive study — nearly 200 pages long — shows how California can become a zero emissions economy by 2045 while expanding good job opportunities throughout the state. Nineteen unions have already endorsed the green transition plan, making clear that they reject frameworks that falsely pit labor priorities and the environment against each other, and more are expected to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

In this interview for Truthout, Pollin, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso 2020), talks about the climate stabilization project for California and the national implications of union support for a green economy transition.

C.J. Polychroniou: California has been at the forefront of the climate fight for years now, but the truth of the matter is that its efforts have fallen short. Now, you and some colleagues of yours at PERI have just completed a commissioned climate stabilization project for California. How does the project envision the clean energy transition to take place in a manner consistent with the emission targets set out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, and how will it be financed?

Robert Pollin: This study presents a recovery program for California that will also build a durable foundation for an economically robust and ecologically sustainable longer-term growth trajectory. California has long been a national and global leader in implementing robust climate stabilization policies. This includes the 2018 Executive Order B-55-18 by then Gov. Jerry Brown. This measure committed the state to cut CO2 emissions by 50 percent as of 2030, to become carbon neutral no later than 2045, and to produce net negative emissions thereafter. These goals are somewhat more ambitious than those set out by the IPCC in 2018. Our study outlines a program through which the state can achieve its own established goals.

Our study shows how these 2030 and 2045 emissions reduction targets can be accomplished in California through phasing out the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas to generate energy in the state, since burning fossil fuels to produce energy is, by far, the primary source of CO2 emissions, and thereby, the single greatest factor causing climate change. The project we propose is to build a clean energy infrastructure to replace the existing fossil fuel-dominant infrastructure. The clean energy infrastructure will require large-scale investments to, first, dramatically raise energy efficiency standards in the state and, second, to equally dramatically expand the supply of clean renewable energy supplies, including solar and wind primarily, with supplemental supplies from low-emissions bioenergy, geothermal and small-scale hydro power. We show how this climate stabilization program for California can also serve as a major new engine of job creation and economic well-being throughout the state, both in the short- and longer run.

A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty,Caitlin Kline, and Gregor Semieniuk - Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI); University of Massachusetts-Amherst, June 10, 2021

This study presents a robust climate stabilization project for California. It demonstrates that achieving the state’s official CO2 emissions reduction targets—a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2045—is a realistic prospect. This climate stabilization project can also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding economic opportunities throughout the state. This includes an increase of over 1 million jobs in the state through investment programs in energy efficiency, clean renewable energy, public infrastructure, land restoration and agriculture. The study also develops a detailed just transition program for workers and communities in California that are currently dependent on the state’s fossil fuel industries for their livelihoods. In particular, we focus here on condi­tions in Kern, Contra Costa, and Los Angeles counties.

The study is divided into nine sections:

  1. Pandemic, Economic Collapse, and Conditions for Recovery
  2. California’s Clean Energy Transition Project
  3. Clean Energy Investments and Job Creation
  4. Investment Programs for Manufacturing, Infrastructure, Land Restoration and Agri­culture
  5. Total Job Creation in California through Combined Investment Programs
  6. Contraction of California’s Fossil Fuel Industries and Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers
  7. County-level Job Creation, Job Displacement, and Just Transition
  8. Achieving a Zero Emissions California Economy by 2045
  9. Financing California’s Recovery and Sustainable Transition Programs

Nineteen labor unions throughout California have endorsed this study and its findings.

Read the text (PDF).

The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership

By John Treat, Sean Sweeney, and Irene HongPing Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 15, 2019

On September 28, 2019, more than 150 trade union representatives, activists and policy allies from more than a dozen countries came together in New York City for a one-day international conference on “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership.”

The conference took place against the backdrop of the massive “Global Climate Strike” actions led by young people in numerous countries around the world, coinciding with the UN “Climate Week” of talks in New York City. In the weeks before those actions, TUED organized a “Global Web Forum” on the #Strike4Climate, and subsequently compiled a list of union statements and actions in support of the strikes.

Framing and Meeting Highlights

The conference program was framed around a number of issues and concerns that have emerged out of recent union-led struggles to both defend and extend public ownership of energy in key countries and regions. Over the course of the day’s proceedings, a number of key themes and broadly shared conclusions emerged, including:

  • Investor-focused climate policy is not delivering the energy transition
  • Privatization of state-owned electricity utilities has failed—but alternatives exist
  • Defending public ownership of energy requires a reform agenda that can drive “de- marketization”
  • Confidence is rising to reverse electricity privatization where it has happened
  • Defending and reclaiming public energy requires building union power
  • The transition must take into account the real development needs of the global South, while contesting carbon- intensive “development as usual”
  • There is an urgent need for technical, programmatic work to make achieving the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal possible

Read the report (PDF).

Labor Unions and Green Transitions in the USA

By Dimitris Stevis - Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change, February 27, 2019

“In broad terms there are now two camps amongst US labour unions with respect to climate change and renewables (the two not always related). On one side, are those unions that believe that something needs to be done about climate change and that renewables are a good strategy. On the other side are those that are opposed to meaningful climate policy –even as they claim that climate change is a problem.”

This report outlines the deep cleavages with respect to climate policy but also argues that the views of unions are more complex and contradictory than the opposition-support dichotomy. Additionally, it seeks to understand what explains the variability in union responses to climate change and policy. What can account for the contradictions evident amongst and within unions?

Read the report (PDF).

Unprecedented? Unions and community unite to halt plans to build coal export terminal in Oakland, California

By Elena Mora - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 9, 2015

A short but well-organized campaign to stop plans to build a coal export terminal in the Oakland Port resulted in a packed Oakland City Council meeting on September 21, and a vote requiring a public health impact study to guide the Council’s action, up to and including a moratorium on coal.

Screenshot 2015-09-26 10.47.56The campaign, “Coal Free Oakland,” led by the Sierra Club and others, brought together a very broad coalition (more than 80 organizations), with significant union participation, including the Alameda Labor Council, which passed a resolution calling on the city to reject the coal export plan.

Among those coordinating the labor outreach was Climate Workers, a project of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project.

Labor and climate justice organizer Brooke Anderson, who heads up Climate Workers, called it “hugely significant — precedent setting — that labor came out in this way and opposed coal coming through the neighborhoods where their members live.” Unions signing on to the petition against the coal facility include the California Nurses Association; SEIU 1021 and United Service Workers West; the American Postal Workers Union (Oakland’s largest post office is next to the port); ILWU Local 10, Local 6 and Northern California District Council; UniteHERE Local 2850; the Peralta Federation of Teachers; the Oakland Education Association; UAW Local 2865; the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192; and AFSCME District Council 57.

Unions representing 4.6 million workers have joined TUED

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, January 3, 2016

Note: The IWW is not an affiliate of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, or any of its affiliate unions, and this article is posted here for information purposes only:

The final months of 2015 saw a large growth in support for TUED in the US and UK

In the final months of 2015, seven unions representing approximately 4.6 million workers have joined Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.  Five of the unions are from the US and two are from the UK.

Screenshot 2015-10-11 13.39.10In a letter dated October 1, 2015, the General Secretary of the UK union Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, Manuel Cortes, informed TUED that the decision to participate in TUED had been made by the union’s Executive Committee. TSSA is a 22,000 member union representing drivers working for railway companies, shipping companies, bus companies, travel agencies, airlines, call centers, and IT companies in the UK and Ireland.

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On October 7th, the policy committee of the UK’s second largest union, UNISON (1.3 million members) also agreed to participate in TUED. UNISON represents workers in a range of public services and hosted a TUED meeting in London on November 27 prior to COP 21 in Paris.  UNISON’s 2014 Warm Homes Into the Future report has drawn attention to the important role of energy conservation in the residential sector both for reducing energy use and for creating jobs. In a statement on the report, UNISON national officer Matt Lay said, “We need to lead the energy agenda and we are in a key position to achieve this.”

Screenshot 2015-10-11 13.42.22In the United States, the United Electrical Workers (UE) has also joined TUED, by way of a resolution passed at its 74th national convention in August 2015. The UE represents roughly 35,000 workers in companies like General Electric, and also newly-formed worker cooperatives, such as the Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago.

The resolution, “Protect our Planet for Future Generations”, endorsed TUED and other “worker-oriented efforts to address climate change.” The resolution called for “public ownership of the energy industry and for massive investments in renewable energy.”

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Also in October, the US’ largest union, the National Education Association (2.9 million members) joined TUED. The union has been supporting teachers with lesson guides on climate change. Another education union, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and research staff working for the City University of New York, joined TUED in November.

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Education unions from Australia, Romania, the US and the UK are now part of TUED, as is their global union federation, Education International (EI.) At its quadrennial world congress in July 2015, resolutions were passed to make sustainable development and climate change one of EI’s priorities in the coming years.

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In late November 2015, District Council 57 AFSCME joined TUED. The union represents 25,000 workers in schools and community colleges, transit agencies, public works and services, clinics and hospitals, and water and wastewater facilities throughout Northern California and the Central Valley.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 12.20.17

Finally, in early December the 270,000 member union UNITE-HERE joined TUED.  The union represents workers in the US and Canada in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries. At the global level,UNITE-HERE has played a leading role in major campaigns around domestic workers and textile workers’ struggles in countries like Bangladesh. Ashwini Sukthankar,  Director of the Global Campaigns Department, will represent UNITE-HERE on TUED’s Global Advisory Group.

Youth encircle Tagami’s Rotunda building to launch #DeCOALonize Oakland boycott

By staff - No Coal in Oakland, November 21, 2017

“We are the children-
The mighty, mighty children!”

This chant rang out as about 80 people encircled the Rotunda Building, half of them young people, mostly of elementary school age, with placards proclaiming “Boycott the Rotunda,” “Youth vs. Coal,” and “DeCOALonize Oakland.”

“Hey hey ho ho
Dirty coal has got to go.”

The practice picket line was part of the November 21 DeCOALonization action organized by young people, with support from Climate Workers and other groups including No Coal in Oakland. This was a launch of the boycott of the Rotunda Building: asking organizations—particularly social justice nonprofits—to stop using the event venue owned by Phil Tagami and to notify him that they are boycotting this space until he drops his lawsuit aiming to reverse Oakland’s ban on coal.

Speakers included several youth, with messages about the dangers of pollution and—considering that Thanksgiving is approaching—support of Indigenous people. Labor was also represented by a speaker from Unite HERE Local 2850, which organizes hospitality workers. She pointed out that the Rotunda Building uses non-union labor and encouraged groups to find a unionized event space through fairhotel.org.

After picketing, the demonstrators enjoyed a meal that included soup and corn bread prepared by the activist youth. In contrast to the fancy events in the Rotunda, the demonstrators fed community members who came up to the tables clearly in need of good nutrition.

If you want to help contact organizations about the boycott, please e-mail NoCoalInOakland [at] gmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: Sunshine Velasco from Survival Media Agency

An Open Letter to Developer Phil Tagami

By Ted Franklin - No Coal in Oakland, April 7, 2017; image by Brooke Anderson

On Saturday, April 8, the Alameda Labor Council will sponsor a Labor, Climate & Jobs Forum with plenary and workshop sessions devoted to how Unions are addressing climate and environmental challenges by organizing workers and communities.  Speakers will include Josie Camacho, executive secretary-treasurer, Alameda Labor Council; Kathyrn Lybarger, president, California State Federation of Labor; Cesar Diaz, State Building and Construction Trades Council; and Carol Zabin, UC Berkeley Labor Center Green Economy Program.

The Forum follows the Labor Council’s pathbreaking support for the No Coal in Oakland campaign.  In September 2015, in one of the first actions by any labor council in the United States to oppose a developer’s plans on environmental grounds, the Alameda Labor Council passed a resolution calling on Mayor Libby Schaaf, the Oakland City Council, and the project developers “to reject the export of coal through the Oakland Global project, to not take funds from Utah to secure use of the terminals for coal, and to execute a binding agreement or adopt an ordinance that will bar export of coal from this public land.”

With strong support from Labor, faith, environmental, and community organizations, the Oakland City Council banned the storage and handling of coal in the City of Oakland by adopting an ordinance prohibiting bulk storage and handling of coal within Oakland’s city limits.

The City supported its decision by reviewing extensive evidence of serious local health and safety impacts that would result from locating a large coal export facility in West Oakland as well as disastrous effects on global climate that would result from burning the vast quantities of coal that would be shipped overseas.

Communities Unite to Fight Coal in Oakland

By Eric K. Arnold - Reimagine, March 2016

Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.

According to the most recent annual report [1] of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. In August, Goldman Sachs divested itself of its coal holdings; a month later, it issued a gloomy forecast[2] for coal’s future, stating, “the industry does not require new investment,” dashing hopes for a miraculous upturn in the coal market. A report[3] by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings; and coal’s value on the Dow Jones index dropped by 76 percent between 2009-14 (a period when the overall Dow index went up 69 percent).

According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations[4] aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted[5] in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”

This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. These desperate times for coal producers have led to desperate measures. Their last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”

Green versus Yellow Unionism in Oakland

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, November 11, 2015

Author's Note: This article is a sequel of sorts to my previous piece, Unions and the Climate Justice Movement, which briefly mentions the No Coal in Oakland campaign. The image, depicted at the right, compares a pro-capitalist-logging poster (yellow, near right) ostensibly created by timber workers (but actually crafted by the employers) to mobilize support for a counter-demonstration to a rally and march, held in Fort Bragg in July 1990, organized by the Redwood Summer coalition (which included timber workers). The green poster (far right), represents the Redwood Summer coalition's response, and accurately summarizes their position on timber workers and timber jobs.

At first glance, the Oakland City Council meeting, held on September 21, 2015 looked much like many public hearings where public opposition had organized in response to the plans, practices, or proposals of capitalist interests that threatened the environment. For most of the evening, and well into the night, council members and the Mayor watched and listened as speaker after speaker (out of a total of over 500) either spoke in favor (or against) coal exports or ceded their time to their allies. On one side were a widely diverse group of activists, organized by a coalition known as No Coal in Oakland-- adorned in red (union made and printed) T-shirts--opposed to plans to export coal through a proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), as part of the Oakland Global Trade and Logistics Center (or Oakland Global), and on the other were the project's supporters, dressed in business attire accompanied by several dozen union workers, many of them from the Laborers' Union, dressed in yellow.  As is often the case, the project's supporters tried to frame the opposition as being composed of insensitive outsiders, and themselves and the supporting "workers" as placing the economic interests of Oakland and its residents above all else. "We support good paying union jobs that will help the struggling, predominantly African-American residents of west Oakland" opined the supporters, trying to suggest that those in opposition didn't.

This is an old, and shopworn script, that has been trotted out numerous times in the past quarter century or more. Anyone who has experienced or studied the "Timber Wars" that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s will recall the armies of loggers and mill-workers decked out in yellow shirts, sporting yellow foam car radio antennae balls or yellow ribbons who would show up en massé (at the behest of their employers, often with pay) to oppose limits to clear-cutting or protections for the Northern Spotted Owl and to denounce (often) green shirted environmentalists as "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" and/or upper middle class "elitists" (or--defying logic--both). Sometimes, in drawn out campaigns, the employers have often furthered this illusion by creating false front "Astroturf" groups, ostensibly composed of workers, to distract attention away from themselves.

The truth is far much more complex and nuanced, of course. Usually the "jobs" promised by the projects' supporters often don't materialize (indeed, the opposite--namely automation, downsizing, and outsourcing--usually occurs). Those in opposition to environmentally destructive practices and proposals are usually composed of and led by locals, most of whom are, themselves, gainfully employed, and sympathetic to the needs and concerns of the affected workers (in fact, the opposition's counter proposals, if well thought out, do more to create "jobs" and job security than those in support of the project). Meanwhile, the actual level of support among the rank and file workers purportedly backing up the capitalists interests could accurately be described as a mile wide and an inch deep, at best. And the bosses? When they speak of jobs, they actually refer to profits. Nevertheless, in the past, the capitalist media has typically and dutifully reported that these projects are opposed by "green clad environmentalists" (or red in this particular case) and supported by "yellow clad workers" (often neglecting to draw any distinction between the workers and their employers).

Therefore, it is both surprising and refreshing, that in spite of the attempts by the employing class to replay that same script on September 21, 2015 in Oakland, the attempt backfired, due to the diligent and tireless organizing by their grassroots opposition. A closer examination of what happened, and how the opposition organized, will illustrate why this is so and how others can duplicate the organizers' efforts to defeat further attempts by capitalist interests to use divide and conquer tactics to push their climate and environment (not-to-mention job) destroying projects through.

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